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A West Coast testimonial on yoga's benefits

June 24, 2014
by Anjali Talcherkar
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Anjali Talcherkar

Three years ago, I walked into Friendly House Women's Recovery Home in Los Angeles broken, hopeless and disillusioned to say the least. My “best thinking” was that a pilgrimage to India and a dip in the holy Ganges River would eliminate my drastic drinking and drugging habit. The negative karma would be erased, and I would sober up sans the sin.

It's not uncommon for addicts and alcoholics to go to great lengths to invent tactics to avoid doing the work necessary to recover from what the Big Book describes as a “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.” We're a crafty bunch with tenacious apathy—the operative word being “tenacious.” As witnessed in many who have recovered, that tenacity often continues, fueling extraordinary expressions of talent and greatness.

Everyone remembers Robert Downey, Jr.'s infamous court appearance in his Los Angeles County Jail regalia. Ah, jumpsuit wishes and jail cell dreams—many of us can relate. Downey made an impressive comeback with his movie "The Avengers" raking in $1 billion worldwide and ranking as the third highest-grossing movie of all time. So what was the linchpin of Downey's success with sobriety? Yoga and meditation.

Effect on dopamine

Of course, the 12-Step work and therapy must have had an impact as well, but in a recent Time interview Downey spoke candidly about his private yoga teacher Vinnie Marino, and personal mindfulness practices. Why are the tools of yoga and meditation truly the icing on an addict's sobriety cake? The answer lies in dopamine.

As described in the book Uppers, Downers, All Arounders, dopamine helps regulate the reward/control pathway. It is the most crucial neurotransmitter involved in drug use and abuse. The “rush” someone experiences after getting high is the surge of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (NAC), an area deep inside the brain within the ventral striatum. As Marc Lewis details, the NAC is responsible for goal-directed behavior and for the motivation to pursue goals. Therefore, the flooding of dopamine to the NAC is responsible for the drug-induced Superman-like behavior to which any addict can attest. But how do yoga and meditation tie into this cognitive carousing?

Yoga and meditation trigger this dopaminergic phenomenon. A study published in Cognitive Brain Research shows increased dopamine release in the striatum, including the NAC, during meditation. According to senior research scientist Dara Ghahremani, PhD, of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, “Such release is typical when taking stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine, but what's fascinating is that dopamine release can occur by simply closing your eyes and deeply relaxing.” So these relaxation techniques are suitable and non-life wrecking alternatives to drugs and alcohol.

Similar to how we reflect the company we keep (sober or using), neurons that wire together fire together. A recent article in Mind the Brain states that “the connections among neurons in a given functional system are constantly changing in response to experience and every experience that has potent emotional content changes the NAC and its uptake of dopamine.” The influx of dopamine released during yoga and meditation changes the reinforcement/reward pathway in the brain and carves out a new mechanism for the system to experience pleasure that is based on an inward-focused activity rather than an external chemical substance.

Widespread in LA

Los Angeles is no newcomer to these ancient Eastern practices, which is exactly why the City of Angels is a recovery utopia. With a yoga studio on every corner, you can't deny the influence of this om-town pride. The list of celebrities who have adopted these practices as part of their recovery regimen and openly endorse them goes on and on. Comedian, actor and recovery icon Russell Brand has graciously lent his private Kundalini yoga instructor to a women's recovery home.

The positive effects of yoga and meditation in addiction recovery are becoming so apparent that the Center for Addictive Behavior at UCLA is now gearing up to study the benefits more closely. This cutting-edge research will provide supportive evidence for effects of mind-body practices on recovery outcomes, inevitably improving treatment.

The research is there. Media endorsements from Hollywood A-listers are widespread. So why is there a discrepancy with actual recovery rates? The truth is that most treatment centers and recovery homes will incorporate mindfulness practices only as an adjunct or supplement to treatment. A newcomer will be mandated to attend two 12-Step meetings a day and encouraged to practice yoga and meditation if time permits. This logic seems a bit skewed in my humble opinion. If our goal is to restructure the neurologic landscape as rapidly as possible and create new neural pathways, which is essentially how the brain recovers, then it seems obvious to utilize tools that assist in that process.

In my first six months of sobriety, I attended support meetings but I also practiced yoga and meditated twice a day. The more hits of dopamine I received through yoga and meditation, the less I craved drugs. An old coping mechanism had been replaced by a healthier substitute.

Healthy alternatives to dopamine potentiation need to be provided to people struggling with addiction. If they don't find it in constructive avenues, they will seek it in relationships, sex, food and who knows what else.